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Little Rock-based DEA agent said to take cash to shield dealer

by Linda Satter | December 5, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

A Little Rock-based DEA agent was arrested late Monday after he got off an airplane from Las Vegas, where the FBI says its agents watched him accept a $9,000 cash bribe from a known drug trafficker who was under investigation in California, Arkansas and Florida.

Agent Nathan Koen, 42, who lives in Conway, appeared Tuesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth Deere on a criminal complaint charging him with accepting bribes in connection with his duties and being part of a conspiracy to distribute large amounts of controlled substances -- heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine.

Deere appointed Little Rock attorney Leslie Borgognoni to represent Koen and ordered him detained at the request of Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Givens.

A criminal complaint authorizes a defendant to be arrested and detained until a federal grand jury can review the allegations and decide whether to issue an indictment. An FBI agent's affidavit in support of the complaint outlined what Deere earlier determined constituted probable cause for issuing a warrant authorizing FBI agents to search Koen's Little Rock office for evidence corroborating the allegations.

The 21-page affidavit said Koen has worked as a group supervisor in the Drug Enforcement Administration's Little Rock office since September 2016, when he transferred from the DEA field office in Jacksonville, Fla., where he had worked since September 2002.

FBI agent Aaron Green, who is part of a squad that investigates public corruption in Arkansas, wrote in the 21-page affidavit that two FBI agents interviewed a known drug dealer, Francisco Enrique Gonzalez Benitez, in Orange County, Calif., last week in connection with an investigation into Benitez's trafficking activities in California, Arkansas and Florida. During the interview, Benitez said he had been paying Koen for information and protection related to Benitez's activities, beginning when Koen worked in Florida.

Benitez told the agents that after his 2012 arrest in Florida for conspiring to distribute heroin, another jail inmate gave him Koen's cellphone number in late 2013. Benitez said he called Koen, who got him released from jail to work as an informant for Koen in return for trying to get reduced sentences for Benitez's family members, who had also been indicted in the heroin distribution conspiracy.

Then in 2016, according to the affidavit, Koen asked Benitez if he was ready to go "back to work," leading Benitez to distribute large amounts of drugs in the Florida area from late 2016 through October 2017. While doing so, Benitez made payments to Koen for "top cover protection," including running names of Benitez's associates through DEA databases to determine if they were working for law enforcement agencies.

Meanwhile, Benitez moved to California, where he tried to ship drugs to Florida, but the package was intercepted by law enforcement officers. The affidavit said Benitez contacted Koen for help, and paid the federal agent $9,000 for information.

The drug dealer also told the FBI agents about several other payments he made to Koen in 2016 in Florida, before Koen was promoted to a supervisory role and moved to Little Rock, according to the affidavit.

In September 2017, postal inspectors in Jacksonville, Fla., intercepted four boxes of drugs that Benitez had sent to his brother in Florida, prompting Koen to contact Benitez to let him know they were "hot," or on law enforcement radar, and urging him to go to Little Rock to discuss the situation. Once Benitez arrived in Little Rock, the affidavit said, Koen picked him up at the airport and they ate at a downtown pizza restaurant as Koen advised the dealer to change his phone numbers and lay low, among other things.

The affidavit goes on to describe trips Benitez said he made to Little Rock in 2018 at Koen's request. Benitez told the FBI agents that once, Koen warned him that a fellow drug dealer with whom he was conducting business was under investigation by law enforcement officials in Little Rock. Another time, Benitez told the FBI, the DEA agent drove his work truck to Benitez's hotel room to pick up cash to hold it overnight in case someone tried to rob Benitez.

The next morning, when Koen returned the money to Benitez, "Benitez took $5,000 out of the $60,000 and placed the money in ... Koen's glove box," the affidavit said.

In September, the drug dealer who Koen had warned Benitez about was targeted in a large-scale law enforcement operation in central Arkansas, according to the FBI. The affidavit said Koen contacted Benitez in California to warn him that his fellow dealer would be "hit," and the dealer eluded capture by fleeing to California.

Another time, the affidavit said, Koen called Benitez to warn him that DEA agents on another squad in his office had run Benitez's name and had shown Koen his photograph to confirm his identity.

The affidavit described how Benitez sent a $5,000 cash payment to Koen inside a magazine by mail, using specific mailing instructions from Koen and an address that the drug dealer said he believed belonged to "a stripper, possibly one of ... Koen's girlfriends."

In the Las Vegas transaction on Monday afternoon, Green said Benitez and Koen met on a sidewalk in front of a hotel as FBI agents watched, and then Benitez followed Koen to a restroom where the dealer put $9,000 in marked bills in Koen's backpack, at Koen's direction.

Before the meeting, Green said, the dealer and the DEA agent exchanged text messages using an application in which messages disappear 10 seconds after being opened and, if any screen-shots are taken, the sender is alerted. The FBI nonetheless managed to unobtrusively document the conversation, according to the affidavit.

Koen wore the same backpack when he stepped off the plane in Little Rock at 11:10 p.m. Monday, the affidavit said.

Metro on 12/05/2018

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